The charms of professional wrestling — half Shakespeare, half steel-chair shots — may never be universally understood. Every adult fan of the sport has encountered those skeptics who cock their heads and ask, “You do know it’s fake, right?”
Well, sure, but that hasn’t stopped pro wrestling from inching closer and closer to the respectable mainstream. Last year, World Wrestling Entertainment announced a partnership with ESPN, leading to straight-faced wrestling coverage on “SportsCenter.” The biggest action star in the world, Dwayne Johnson, known as the Rock, got his start as an eyebrow-waggling wrestler. When the “Today” show needs a guest host, it enlists the WWE star John Cena to don a suit and crack jokes. No less an emblem of cultivated liberal intelligentsia than Jon Stewart recently hosted wrestling’s annual Summerslam, his first major gig since leaving “The Daily Show.” Wrestling may never be cool, but it is, at the very least, no longer seen as the exclusive province of the unwashed hoi polloi.
This is partly because the rest of the world has caught up to wrestling’s ethos. With each passing year, more and more facets of popular culture become something like wrestling: a stage-managed “reality” in which scripted stories bleed freely into real events, with the blurry line between truth and untruth seeming to heighten, not lessen, the audience’s addiction to the melodrama. The modern media landscape is littered with “reality” shows that audiences happily accept aren’t actually real; that, in essence, is wrestling. (“WWE Raw” leads to “The Real World,” which leads to “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” and so forth.) The way Beyoncé teased at marital problems in “Lemonade” — writing lyrics people were happy to interpret as literal accusations of her famous husband’s unfaithfulness — is wrestling. The question of whether Steve Harvey meant to announce the wrong Miss Universe winner is wrestling. Did Miley Cyrus and Nicki Minaj authentically snap at each other at last year’s MTV Video Music Awards? The surrounding confusion was straight out of a wrestling playbook.
It’s not just in entertainment, either. For a while, it became trendy to insist that the 2016 presidential election, with all its puffed chests and talk of penis size, seemed more like a wrestling pay-per-view event than a dignified clash of political minds. In politics, as in wrestling, the ultimate goal is simply to get the crowd on your side. And like all the best wrestling villains — or “heels” — Donald Trump is a vivacious, magnetic speaker unafraid to be rude to his opponents; there was even a heelish consistency to his style at early debates, when heactively courted conflict with the moderator, Megyn Kelly, and occasionally paused to let the crowds boo him before shouting back over them. (The connection isn’t just implied, either: Trump was inducted to the WWE’s Hall of Fame in 2013, owing to his participation in several story lines over the years.) Ted Cruz’s rhetorical style, with its dramatic pauses, violent indignation and tendency to see every issue as an epic moral battleground, was sometimes reminiscent of great wrestling heels. The way Rick Perry called Trump’s candidacy a “cancer” that “will lead the Republican Party to perdition” before endorsing Trump and offering to serve as his vice president: this was a tacit admission that all his apocalyptic rhetoric was mainly for show. Pure wrestling, in other words.
As for Trump — whose campaign theatrics feel like a one-man show, and whose history as a registered Democrat can make his contorted appeals to the far right seem like put-ons — well, not for nothing is there a conspiratorial segment insisting that his candidacy is a winking performance, which will eventually end with the admission that he may have laid it on a little thick.
It’s only recently that pro wrestling itself was willing to take that sort of step, to acknowledge its own artifice. The very idea of a wrestler “breaking character” is still relatively novel. Barely 30 years ago, the ABC anchor John Stossel asked the wrestler David Schultz, known as “Dr. D,” if what he did was fake, and had his ears boxedfor the suggestion. The necessity of maintaining character even extended out of the ring: Good guys and bad guys were often asked not to fraternize in public, lest a fan wonder why sworn enemies were sharing a beer. There are stories of wrestlers who hesitated to wise up their spouses and children, even if that meant faking injuries around the house.
Over time, though, the mystery wore off. In 1989, officials for the World Wrestling Federation testified before the New Jersey Senate that wrestling was only “entertainment,” in order to avoid regulations that applied to legitimate athletic contests. Wrestlers began taking roles in scripted television shows and movies and wrote autobiographies that readily disclosed the secrets of the business. Today, the WWE produces its own documentary programming explaining how a wrestling show is put together: how the characters are molded into heroes and villains, how they train to make the action look real but not too real. (In wrestling, it’s considered a cardinal sin to genuinely hurt your opponent, thereby limiting their ability to work.) The WWE clearly no longer cares about ensuring that wrestling seems literally real; anyone past puberty who forgets that they’re watching scripted entertainment is referred to as a “mark.”
What the WWE does care about is keeping control of the way people experience “wrestling” — preferably not as the disreputable carny spectacle it once was, but as a family-friendly, 21st-century entertainment. When recapping wrestling history, it can completely elide the messier incidents: the sex scandals, shady deaths, neglected injuries, drug abuse and more. The audience, meanwhile, knows what the WWE cares about, giving it enough knowledge of wrestling’s inner workings to analyze each narrative not just through its in-world logic (“this guy will win the championship because he seems more driven”) but by considering external forces (“this guy will win the championship because he is well-spoken enough to represent the company when he inevitably shows up on ‘Today’”). Parsing both those layers — the behavior and the meta-behavior, the story told and the story of why it’s being told that way — can be an entertainment in its own right, and speculating on creative decisions has long been a fascination for wrestling fans.
This is how a lot of fields work these days. The audiences and the creators labor alongside each other, building from both ends, to conceive a universe with its own logic: invented worlds that, however false they may be, nevertheless feel good and right and amusing to untangle. Consider the many ways of listening to the song “Sorry,” from Lemonade, in which Beyoncé takes shots at an unnamed woman referred to as “Becky with the good hair”: a person we’re led to believe is having a relationship with the singer’s husband. You can theorize about the real-world identity of “Becky with the good hair,” as the internet did. You can consider the context of the phrase (why “Becky”? why “good hair”?), as the internet did. You can think about why Beyoncé decided to make art suggesting that her real-life husband cheated on her. All of this will be more time-consuming, and thus be interpreted as more meaningful, than if she had said outright, “He did it.” (Or if we said, “It’s just a song.”)
The process of shaping a story by taking all these layers into account seems dangerously similar to what corporations do when they talk about “telling the story of our brand” — only as applied to real people and real events, instead of mascots and promotional stunts. On a spiritual level, it seems distasteful to imagine a living person as a piece being moved around on a narrative chessboard, his every move calculated to advance a maximally entertaining story line. But this is how it all too often works — whether plotted by the public figures themselves or by some canny handler (an adviser, a producer, a PR rep), everyone is looking to sculpt the narrative, to add just the right finishing touch.
So when I think of how politics and pop culture are often compared to wrestling, this is the element that seems most transferable: not the outlandish characters or the jumbo-size threats, but the insistence on telling a great story with no regard for the facts. Donald Trump can claim there were thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheering when the World Trade Center came down. Bill Clinton can lend weight to the myth of pedantic Bernie Bros overwhelming our national political discourse. Michael Jordan can say he was cut from his varsity basketball team, but was driven enough to overcome the slight. Kim Kardashian can say she married Kris Humphries for love, not ratings. Chance the Rapper can brand himself as an independent, unsigned artist, even though his last two mixtapes were released exclusively through Apple, the 12th-largest corporation in the world. And the WWE can honor the recently deceased wrestling star Chyna as a trailblazer, even though it blacklisted her for an entire decade. Each of these doctored realities is close enough, a problem only for pedants.
You can be dismayed with all of this for reasons that go deeper than taste. When everything becomes a story, the value of concrete truth seems diminished. There’s too much going on in the world to dive this deep into something as frivolous as entertainment, you might say. Worse still, you can begin to treat politics — the hammer and forge of our national reality — as a similar form of “show.” Sure, seeking out entertainment is a perfectly human impulse; it feels joyless to sharpen yourself into a hypervigilant instrument, ever ready to poke a hole in these swelling mythologies; we all know those people, who are no fun. But when we feel ourselves becoming too consumed with mastering the language of whatever unreality is currently holding our gaze, it might not hurt to consider the overarching forces subtly directing our attention and prepare ourselves to step back if we’re not comfortable with benefiting less than they do.
And ultimately, we can’t expect that post-truth culture will somehow collapse because of its perfidiousness. The WWE, for instance, now tells its story without challenge: It’s outlasted all its major competitors and holds the rights to the very images wrestling’s history is made of. Its version of wrestling is the accepted reality of 2016, even when that version is drastically different, and maybe even worse, than the reality of wrestling’s old-school rough-and-tumble days. If a story is told well, if its history seems consistent, then the machinations putting it into place can be temporarily overlooked or turned into a fun story of their own. And why not? In the end, we’re all marks for a world we want to believe in.
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